Thursday, May 14, 2009

Vilsack sends mixed messages on risk management

There have been numerous times in my career when I've asked a fairly innocent question of a Secretary of Agriculture, only to get a rather eye-opening response. My first media briefing with former Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer provides a good example. I asked about his position on U.S. sugar policy and he gave me an answer straight from his home state of North Dakota, where he had served as an extremely popular governor. There was a communications staffer in the room, but she failed to understand the implications and intervene.

Schafer was so intent on giving me his perspective, based on his former position as Governor, that he forgot that he was now playing in the big league. The President and U.S. Trade Representative were not amused when they read about his response, which ran basically counter to their international trade policies.

Should he have been given some slack? Perhaps, because it was only his first meeting with reporters. But after awhile, you expect government officials to get the terminology and the policies down, and to not make comments when they don't know the answer.

Now we've got another former Governor in the Secretary's seat and he is unfortunately, making some of the same mistakes---even after he's been serving for more than 100 days.

Secretary Vilsack is definitely trying to walk the line with President Obama's policies, but some of his comments make me wonder whether or not he is shooting comments before he has a chance to really aim. Wednesday’s agricultural appropriations subcommittee hearing on his 2010 budget provides a good example.

As we reported on, Vilsack sought to reassure lawmakers that "the President’s budget maintains the three-legged stool of farm payments, crop insurance, and disaster assistance.” Problem is, the "three-legged stool" he referred to is “farm bill lingo” for farm program payments: direct payments, counter-cyclical payments and marketing loans---not crop insurance and disaster payments.

Vilsack also went after crop insurance companies for their excessive profits. Now, I understand that big business bashing is in vogue, but his comments represented a very mixed message to the record number of farmers who have been paying for crop insurance.

The Secretary said that, while in the past it was hard to get farmers to sign up for crop insurance, today farmers often have to sign up as a condition of qualifying for bank loans or disaster relief “so there’s now more of a mandate.” Vilsack said the result is that private companies “have seen a huge increase in their market. . . so they are making a tremendous amount of money, billions of dollars. . . There is a tremendous amount of profit. . . We just think that this needs to be a fairer deal for taxpayers.”

Hmmm...Why would lenders require crop insurance? Perhaps because farmers who pay for crop insurance policies, many of which are now based on expected revenue, have a valuable risk management tool that allows them to market a crop prior to harvest and actually repay their lenders. It also makes farmers less likely to go begging to Congress for annual disaster assistance or to rely on the new so-called “permanent” disaster program.

Yes, companies received a lot of money for farmers last year but it was because they were insuring crops that, because of last year’s run-up in commodity prices, were worth billions of dollars. And in places like Iowa, where my family farms, the crop insurance industry paid almost $1.1 billion to the farmers for their losses, according to the most recent summary of business data released by USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA).

So what type of situation would these companies be in if they charged less and then had to pay for losses on all of the crops they insured at those higher levels? Probably not too eager to stay in the crop insurance business. At present, there are only 16 firms approved by RMA under their Standard Reinsurance Agreement

And it’s not only the insurance companies that could be impacted. How would farm lenders be faring if they didn't get their loans repaid? How many farmers would be in bad financial straits if they had not purchased crop insurance to cover their crop losses?

It’s unclear to me whether or not Vilsack really wants to create a new three-legged stool. Maybe he wants taxpayers to pay more in subsidies for annual disaster payments and less in subsidies for crop insurance. Maybe he’s just running in so many different directions with so little staff, that he needs more time to get “up to speed” on these issues

Regardless, I hope that he takes a more comprehensive look at what’s working for farmers in terms of crop insurance and what’s not, before taking a stand on this issue. Surely there can be some ways to reduce government costs, while still maintaining a strong risk management system that farmers, lenders and even the crop insurance companies can depend on.

Agriculture News, Farm Policy, and Rural Policy


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